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With New Albums, Bob Dylan, Neil Young And Willie Nelson Are As Relevant As Ever

Jul 2, 2020
Originally published on June 30, 2020 5:39 pm

This week, Bob Dylan's first album of new music in eight years, Rough and Rowdy Ways, rose to No. 2 on the Billboard albums chart, making him the first ever artist to have a Top 40 album in every decade since the 1960s. But Bob Dylan is not alone in making vital new music well into what some might call his "retirement" years. This past month has also seen releases by Neil Young (Homegrown), Willie Nelson (First Rose of Spring) and the late John Prine ("I Remember Everything").

"Their artistic trajectory mirrors the Baby Boomer generation they inspired," says NPR Music critic and correspondent Ann Powers. "They thought they'd peak at 30, but as culture changed and what we think of as 'old age' became a much more active and engaged phase of life, they're doing the same thing as many of their listeners."

Mary Louise Kelly spoke to Ann Powers about the way that none of these artists rest on their laurels, instead creating poignant and powerful work late into their careers. Listen in the audio player above, and read on for highlights of their conversation.

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Interview Highlights

On Bob Dylan creating an album that carves space out of the modern landscape of hip-hop and pop music

Dylan has managed to make an album that seems to reference his whole career while feeling like something new. What I've noticed about Rough and Rowdy Ways is that it gives us so many of the Bob Dylans that we've known and loved over the years: the Dylan who free associates long strings of poetic phrasings; the Dylan who can write a really pure and direct love song; or the Dylan who likes to play the mythical adventurer; or even the crooner who's covered Sinatra. It's like he's curating his own life, and showing why these themes and approaches can still be relevant.

Bob Dylan is also a lot like a rapper — he interpolates, he samples, yet there he is at the heart of it and he's still projecting his own personality.

On Neil Young presenting archival material to prove the vibrancy of his legacy

Neil Young is also always making new music but this "new" release, Homegrown, is actually an album from 1975 that he's finally releasing in its original form. It's a really great move, not only in terms of helping his fans understand the whole arc of his career, but in reminding listeners why Neil Young's sound is still so relevant. You can hear so much of what current rock bands or even country or Americana bands are doing now — it all stems from this sound that Neil Young and Crazy Horse made back in the '70s.

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On how Willie Nelson and John Prine remain relevant through the seeds they planted in a new generation

Willie Nelson is like a music industry unto himself. He works with his sons Lukas and Micah, and producer Buddy Cannon. They made this album in quarantine — very contemporary — swapping files back and forth over the Internet. The album is mostly covers, but the songs he wrote with Buddy Cannon are beautiful meditations on life in the twilight years.

[He's] crafting this ongoing conversation about being an elder, about facing mortality, and also kind of about the history of popular music. Both Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson, they are not afraid of showing the age in their voices, but the power is also still there. And that, for me, is what makes this music the most relevant.

John Prine remained relevant until his last day of his life because he, too, always kept growing, mentoring younger artists, writing songs. It's just a perfect final statement from John, it's got that humor and humility and joy in life that he carried to his last days.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Bob Dylan has got a new album out - "Rough And Rowdy Ways." This week, it rose to No. 2 on the Billboard albums chart, making him the first-ever artist to have a Top 40 album in every decade since the 1960s.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KEY WEST (PHILOSOPHER PIRATE)")

BOB DYLAN: (Singing) Key West is the place to be if you're looking for immortality. Stay on the road. Follow the highway sign.

KELLY: Dylan is getting all kinds of critical acclaim, and this is his highest-charting album in a decade - pretty good for a guy who will be 80 next year. Now, Bob Dylan is not alone in making vital new music well into what some might call his retirement years. There are also new projects from Neil Young, Willie Nelson and the late John Prine this summer, and they've all accomplished something similar. NPR Music critic and correspondent Ann Powers joins us to talk about these still very relevant elders and, I hope, play a lot of their music for us.

Hey there, Ann.

ANN POWERS, BYLINE: Hey.

KELLY: All right. So let's start with Bob Dylan and this new album. How remarkable is it that it seems to work in 2020 when it's hip-hop and pop that are so dominant culturally and commercially?

POWERS: Bob Dylan is, in a way, a world unto himself. As he said in one of the songs on this record, he contains multitudes. And he's managed to make an album here that seems to reference his whole career.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KEY WEST (PHILOSOPHER PIRATE)")

DYLAN: (Singing) I've never lived in the land of Oz or wasted my time with an unworthy cause. It's hot down here, and you can't be overdressed. Tiny blossoms of a toxic plant.

POWERS: What I've noticed about "Rough And Rowdy Ways" is that it gives us so many of the Bob Dylans that we've known and loved over the years - you know, the Dylan who free-associates long strings of poetic phrasings, the Dylan who can write a really pure and direct love song or the Dylan who likes to play the mythical adventurer or even the crooner who's covered Sinatra. It's like he's curating his own life.

KELLY: It is a balancing act, though, for someone in their late 70s, pushing 80, to feel relevant in this era. How does he pull it off?

POWERS: Dylan is just himself. His personality just shines through so much. Bob Dylan is also a lot like a rapper. He interpolates. He samples. And then yet, there he is at the heart of it - his strong personality. And sometimes he's just very direct, like when he writes a beautiful love song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'VE MADE UP MY MIND TO GIVE MYSELF TO YOU")

DYLAN: (Singing) I met no other traveler there. Lot of people gone, a lot of people I knew. I've made up my mind to give myself to you.

KELLY: That song - "I've Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You." He still sounds like Bob Dylan. Let me turn you to another relative whippersnapper - 74-year-old Neil Young. He put out an album the same day Dylan put his out. Tell us about "Homegrown."

POWERS: Neil Young is also always making new music. But this new release, "Homegrown," is actually an album from 1975.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VACANCY")

NEIL YOUNG: (Singing) I need that girl like the night needs the day. I don't need you getting in my way.

POWERS: You can hear so much of what current rock bands or even country or Americana bands are doing now. It all stems from this sound that Neil Young and Crazy Horse made back in the '70s.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VACANCY")

YOUNG: (Singing) Vacancy, vacancy.

KELLY: All right. So there's Neil Young. Let me turn you to another artist, Ann, who is releasing his 70th solo studio album this week. I'm talking about Willie Nelson. And that blows my mind - 70th solo studio album.

POWERS: And that's just part of his catalog. I mean, Willie Nelson's done so many collaborations, live albums. Willie Nelson is like a music industry unto himself.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLUE STAR")

WILLIE NELSON: (Singing) We're just riding on the wind.

KELLY: Eighty-seven years old, 70 albums in - is there anything left for him to explore in this new album?

POWERS: Willie Nelson is such a craftsman and an artist. And the nuance of his singing and his guitar playing is just unparalleled.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLUE STAR")

NELSON: (Singing) I'll be the blue star on your ride (ph).

POWERS: And on this new record, the "First Rose Of Spring," you hear Willie singing kind of in a jazz standard style. You hear cowboy songs. He has some beautiful ballads. And it's - really, Mary Louise, this music is relevant because musicmaking itself always captures the present moment. And Willie Nelson is showing us what it's like to be a vital person at nearly 90. It's astounding.

KELLY: Do their voices sound different to you than they did 20, 30, 40 years ago?

POWERS: Both Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson - they really are not afraid of showing the age in their voices. But the power is also still there. And that, for me, is what makes this music the most relevant because - let's be honest - we need guides to the later phases of life. We need these beacons from our elders. And I'm grateful for their voices, with all of the warts and, you know, the halting phrases. And they still both sound beautiful, but this is just what I want from these artists.

KELLY: Before I let you go, Ann, let me ask about one last artist who sadly is no longer with us, and that is John Prine. He died just in March of COVID-19, but his label just released a posthumous song. It's called "I Remember Everything." Before we hear a taste of it, what should we know about it?

POWERS: John Prine remained relevant until the last day of his life because he, too, always kept growing, writing songs. It's just a perfect final statement from John. It's - you know, it's got that humor and humility and joy in life that he carried to his very last days.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I REMEMBER EVERYTHING")

JOHN PRINE: (Singing) I've been down this road before. I remember every tree. Every single blade of grass holds a special place for me.

KELLY: Ann Powers is NPR Music critic and correspondent. The music we touched on here was Bob Dylan's "Rough And Rowdy Ways," Neil Young's "Homegrown" and Willie Nelson's "First Rose Of Spring," a soundtrack for this summer of 2020.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I REMEMBER EVERYTHING")

PRINE: (Singing) Got no future in my happiness, though regrets are very few. Sometimes a little tenderness was the best that I could do. I remember everything, things I can't forget - swimming pools of butterflies that slipped right through the net. And I remember every night, your ocean eyes of blue. How I miss you in the morning light like roses miss the... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.